Helping Hollywood Avoid Claims of Bias Is Now a Growing Business

Business will find a way…

In the summer of 2020, not long after the murder of George Floyd spurred a racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.

Ms. Twigg, a founding partner of a production company named Culture House, was asked over and over again if she could take a look at a television or movie script and raise any red flags, particularly on race.

Culture House, which employs mostly women of color, had traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of fielding the requests about scripts, they decided to make a business of it: They opened a new division dedicated solely to consulting work.

“The frequency of the check-ins was not slowing down,” Ms. Twigg said. “It was like, oh, we need to make this a real thing that we offer consistently — and get paid for.”

Though the company has been consulting for a little more than a year — for clients like Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney — that work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.

Culture House is hardly alone. In recent years, entertainment executives have vowed to make a genuine commitment to diversity, but are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking steps to address the issue, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with numerous companies and nonprofits to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with having a movie or an episode of a TV show face accusations of bias.

“When a great idea is there and then it’s only talked about because of the social implications, that must be heartbreaking for creators who spend years on something,” Ms. Twigg said. “To get it into the world and the only thing anyone wants to talk about are the ways it came up short. So we’re trying to help make that not happen.”

The consulting work runs the gamut of a production. The consulting companies sometimes are asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they may also read scripts to search for examples of bias and to scrutinize how characters are positioned in a story.

“It’s not only about what characters say, it’s also about when they don’t speak,” Ms. Twigg said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as an ornament, you’re going to get dinged for that.’”

When a consulting firm is on retainer, it can also come with a guaranteed check every month from a studio. And it’s a revenue stream developed only recently.

“It really exploded in the last two years or so,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, the executive director of Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, a nonprofit. The group, called CAPE, is on retainer to some of the biggest Hollywood studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.

Of the 100 projects that CAPE has consulted on, Ms. Sugihara said, roughly 80 percent have come since 2020, and they “really increased” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That really ramped up attention on our community,” she said.

Ms. Sugihara said her group could be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all of the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming scripted project appeared to be light-skinned East Asian people whereas the villains were portrayed by darker-skinned East Asian actors.

“That’s a red flag,” she said. “And we should talk about how those images may be harmful. Sometimes it’s just things that people aren’t even conscious about until you point it out.”

Ms. Sugihara would not mention the name of the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited nondisclosure agreements with the studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they could not divulge specifics.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, said her group had been doing consulting work informally for years with the networks and studios. Finally, she decided to start charging the studios for their labor — work that she compared to “billable hours.”

“Here we were consulting with all these content creators across Hollywood and not being compensated,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile here we are with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that were hits. And I said this doesn’t make sense.”

In 2018, she created the GLAAD Media Institute — if the networks or studios wanted any help in the future, they’d have to become a paying member of the institute.

Initially, there was some pushback but the networks and studios would eventually come around. In 2018, there were zero members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had swelled to 58, with nearly every major studio and network in Hollywood now a paying member.

Scott Turner Schofield, who has spent some time working as a consultant for GLAAD, has also been advising networks and studios on how to accurately depict transgender people for years. But he said the work had increased so significantly in recent years that he was brought on board as an executive producer for a forthcoming horror movie produced by Blumhouse.

“I’ve gone from someone who was a part-time consultant — barely eking by — to being an executive producer,” he said.

Those interviewed said that it was a win-win arrangement between the consultancies and the studios.

“The studios at the end of the day, they want to produce content but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the advocacy organization Color of Change. “Making money can be impeded because of poor decisions and not having the right people at the table. So the studios are going to want to seek that.”

He did caution, however, that simply bringing on consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change that many advocates want to see in Hollywood.

“This doesn’t change the rules with who gets to produce content and who gets to make the final decisions of what gets on the air,” he said. “It’s fine to bring folks in from the outside but that in the end is insufficient to the fact that across the entertainment industry there is still a problem in terms of not enough Black and brown people with power in the executive ranks.”

Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consultancy work may be here to stay. Ms. Twigg, who helped found Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said that the volume of requests she was getting was “illustrative of how seriously it’s being taken, and how comprehensively it’s being brought into the fabric of doing business.”

“From a business standpoint, it’s a way for us to capitalize on the expertise that we have gathered as people of color who have been alive in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said.

Source: Helping Hollywood Avoid Claims of Bias Is Now a Growing Business

Define American Releases Best Practices Guide on Immigrant Representation in Film and TV 

Of interest:

Define American has released “Telling Authentic Immigrant Stories: A Reference Guide for the Entertainment Industry,” a best practices’ guide in telling immigrant stories, with a focus on film and television.

The guide is aimed at individual content creators, as well as production companies and studios at large, and it features detailed descriptions, definitions, historical timelines and dates, and other resources about specific communities. There is an emphasis on such still-evolving topics as DACA and, in partnership with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and International Refugee Assistance Project, global climate displacement.

“Our research shows that immigrants continue to be underrepresented on screen. As such, Hollywood has a unique opportunity, a unique power, and a unique responsibility to meet the moment and make meaningful cultural change by authentically and accurately telling the disparate stories of our country,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, founder, Define American. “We are making great strides forward with more diverse and equitable hiring in front of and behind the camera, more inclusive stories, more immigrant writers, but we still have much work to do. We encourage content creators at every level to use this guide as a starting point in that journey.”

The new guide centers six key things for those creating and/or greenlighting new content to consider. First among them is hiring more immigrants in the writers’ room and on the crew and casting them too so their perspectives can be heard and considered for the storytelling. Additionally, the guide suggests engaging with immigrant communities to get an even wider and deeper range of perspectives, seeking expert opinions, focusing stories on universal themes, being sensitive to risk and privacy and empowering immigrant characters to control their own narratives (rather than telling tales of white saviorism, for example).

The new guide also points out that not all immigrants are Latine, incorporating data and key findings from the organization’s 2020 television impact study, titled “Change the Narrative, Change the World” and published with USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center, to support this point. Through new partnerships with Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) and The UndocuBlack Network, the guide puts a spotlight on AAPI and Black immigrants, noting they are still grossly underrepresented on TV at the moment. AAPI immigrants, for example, comprise 12% of immigrants on TV even though the study shows they represent 26% of the U.S. immigrant population.

It also dives into preferred terms, such as “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” and offers arguments for moving away from stereotypes such as “the good immigrant,” “the marriage miracle” or only telling fear-based stories (such as immigrant characters worrying they will be deported). The guide includes a timeline of immigration law’s history and some other government and geography-based facts important pieces of the immigration narrative.

Define American is a media advocacy and culture change organization that has consulted on more than 100 film and television projects, including ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” the CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico” and the former NBC sitcom “Superstore.” The organization releases studies and guides periodically and also provides grants that prioritize undocumented and formerly undocumented artists.

Hollywood reaps the rewards of becoming more diverse

Of note:

HATTIE MCDANIEL was the first black person to win an Oscar, in 1940. She received her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of “Mammy”, a house slave in “Gone With the Wind”. Although critics allege that the film romanticised slavery in the antebellum South, McDaniel thought that her Oscar represented a watershed moment for America. “My own people were especially happy. They felt that in honouring me, Hollywood had honoured the entire race,” she wrote in the Hollywood Reporter in 1947.

Racial minorities have made significant gains in Hollywood in the 80 years since. Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón of the University of California, Los Angeles, have tracked the diversity of film roles for the top 200 films (ranked by box-office revenues and viewers’ ratings) released in cinemas and on streaming platforms since 2011. They found that 2020 was the most diverse year yet. Actors from racial minorities were cast in 40% of leading roles last year, compared with an average of 27% for 2018-19. Women’s representation in leading roles increased towards parity, too (see centre chart).

Although racial minorities as a whole and women nearly match their shares of the American population in acting roles, they remain under-represented behind the camera. They made up about one-fifth to one-quarter of the directors and writers of the top 200 films last year. And in front of the camera some races are more present than others: Latinos, who make up 19% of America’s population, were cast in 5.7% of all acting roles last year (see right-hand chart).

The report also found that films with the most diverse casts tended to do better at the box office. Among the ten most successful films released in cinemas in 2020, eight had casts of which at least 30% were non-white. By a similar measure, the dozen poorest-performing films last year also had the least diverse casts. Although the covid-19 pandemic disrupted theatrical releases last year a similar pattern emerges among movies released through streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+. Six of the top ten rated films released online had casts that were at least 40% non-white.

Although audiences appear to be favouring a handful of blockbusters with more diversity, the most diverse films tend to have smaller budgets, on average. Nearly three-quarters of films with a minority leading actor had a budget of less than $20m, compared with 58% of films with white leading actors. A similar disparity exists between female- and male-led films. This may be because these films are also more likely to be directed by minorities or women, who are given smaller budgets and, in turn, cast actors who are female or from minority races.

The study also finds that films with the best chance of winning an Oscar in recent years have had the least diverse cast of actors. Since 2016 the social-media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has brought attention to the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees. Efforts have since been made to grapple with the problem. At the Academy Awards in April, half of the nominees for leading roles were racial minorities. Daniel Kaluuya, a British actor born to Ugandan parents, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Judas and the Black Messiah”—the first film with an all-black production team to be nominated for Best Picture. Youn Yuh-jung, of South Korea, won Best Supporting Actress, and Chloé Zhao, a film-maker born in China, won Best Director. More change is under way. From 2024 the Academy Awards will screen out films that do not meet strict diversity thresholds. What McDaniel started may at last be bearing fruit.


This group is working behind the scenes to change the stories you see on TV

Of interest and importance:

ICE agents raid a big-box store, racing down the aisles to apprehend an employee. A DACA recipient who’s a doctor frets over her future. And a family separated by deportation struggles to connect on the phone.

These scenes on TV shows aren’t just quick plot twists ripped from the headlines in the age-old tradition of primetime television. They’re part of a deeper effort behind the scenes to shape new immigrant characters and storylines.
And an advocacy group known as Define American is leading the charge.
Their hope: That changing the conversations in Hollywood’s writers’ rooms will pave the way for immigration policy changes in Washington, too.
“This is long-term work,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, Define American’s founder. “This is not like, ‘How do we pass a bill next month?’ This is, ‘How do we create a culture in which we see immigrants as people deserving of dignity?’ These policies don’t make sense if we don’t see immigrants as people.”
Vargas knows the power of TV to shape stories and change minds. After revealing he was an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times magazine piece, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist became a high-profile advocate and filmmaker whose documentaries appeared on MTV and CNN.
When he first arrived in the United States from the Philippines in the 1990s, Vargas says that he — like many immigrants — got to know his new home by watching TV.
“When we get to this country, our most effective teacher is the television screen. … The way that I talk is because of all the TV and all the popular culture that I consumed,” he says. “For me, the most effective way of becoming American was being exposed to the media.”
Now the organization he founded is flipping that idea on its head.
So far, Vargas says, Define American has consulted on 75 film and TV projects across 22 networks.
The organization says stories it’s shaped have appeared on NBC’s “Superstore,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” OWN’s “Queen Sugar” and CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico.” And they hope the list will grow.
Just as “Frasier,” “The Golden Girls” and “Will ​& Grace” helped him learn about American slang and society, Vargas says a new generation of TV shows can be a bridge, too — this time helping Americans better understand immigrants’ stories.

The view from inside the writers’ room

The first time she spoke with writers from “Superstore,” Elizabeth Grizzle Voorhees felt like she had to break some difficult news.
A season into the NBC sitcom, which portrays life for workers inside a big-box store, the writers had taken the plot ​arc of one prominent character in a direction they hadn’t anticipated when the show began: Mateo, who’s gay, fiercely competitive and proud of his Filipino heritage, discovered he was undocumented.
And the show’s writers were trying to sort out what to do next.
“They had a ton of questions,” says Voorhees, a former reality TV showrunner who’s now Define American’s ​chief strategy officer. Their top concern: “How do we get him citizenship?”
That day, she says, Define American’s team explained that the writers’ top question may be impossible to answer for Mateo, just as it is for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“That it might not be possible to resolve that storyline within a season, within a few episodes, or even within multiple seasons,” Voorhees says.
“I wouldn’t want to tell a story where say, Mateo does find this funny way that totally works and makes him a citizen. And none of that is true. I don’t think it’s good for society that we’re spreading a wrong message,” says Spitzer, now an executive producer of the show.
“I think as a viewer, if I’m watching something and even one time, I see them say something is possible that I know is impossible, that show has largely lost me.”
Instead, he says, Define American’s guidance — along with insights from immigration lawyers and even someone who worked at ICE — helped the writers shape stories rooted in reality.
Define American would bring panels of undocumented immigrants into the writers’ room, he says, sparking ideas for entire episodes with each conversation.
“It became this amazing resource for us. … Organizations like this are great. They can answer questions, but by just sitting around and talking, we can come up with stories we never even dreamed of before,” he says.
One example: an episode in the show’s second season when Mateo, desperate for a solution to his immigration woes, tries to get people in the store to assault him so he can be eligible for a visa for crime victims.
​The sixth season of “Superstore” is set to premiere on NBC later this month. Mateo still isn’t a citizen.

Awareness is growing

Today’s TV landscape is dotted with immigrant storylines.
“The Transplant” on NBC features a Syrian doctor who flees his war-torn country and starts over as a medical resident. Shows streaming on Netflix like “Never Have I Ever” and “Kim’s Convenience” portray immigrant parents with comedy and heart. “One Day at a Time,” scheduled to start airing this month on CBS, features Rita Moreno as the immigrant matriarch of a Cuban-American family. On Cinemax, “Warrior” tells tales of Chinese immigrant life in 19th-century San Francisco.
Popular shows that recently ended their run, like “Orange is the New Black” or “Jane the Virgin,” were lauded for the immigrant storylines they incorporated into their final seasons.
And these days, conversations about race and representation once relegated to obscurity are playing a far more prominent role. Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee recently grilled experts about diversity in Hollywood.
“There is greater awareness than we’ve probably ever seen before. … People are interested in telling diverse stories. They’re interested in telling stories that haven’t been told before that really can hit home,” Voorhees says.
But shows with more nuanced portrayals of immigrants like “Superstore,” “One Day at a Time” or “Warrior” still aren’t the norm, says Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
“We’re not telling good immigrant stories. … There’s groups that we are just not talking about because of our stereotypes of who the undocumented immigrants are,” she says.

How immigrants on TV differ from reality

That’s something Define American’s leaders say they’ve found in their research as well.
In a study released last month with the Norman Lear Center’s ​Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California, researchers found notable gaps between reality and the ways immigrant stories are portrayed in TV shows.
Their analysis of 129 immigrant characters in 59 scripted shows from the 2018-2019 TV season found that half the immigrant characters on TV were Latinx, a figure roughly in line with reality. But they also found that proportionally, Middle Eastern immigrants were over-represented on television, making up around 10% of the immigrant characters on TV while comprising just 4% of the US immigrant population. About 12% of immigrants on TV are Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants, but that group is estimated to make up about 26% of the US immigrant population.
And that season, the study found there were no undocumented Black immigrants on television, even though it’s estimated there are around 600,000 living in the United States.
“The storyline right now, in the last couple years, in the minds of Hollywood — and I think the larger United States — is that undocumented immigrants equals Latinx,” Yuen says. “The reality is there are also Asian and African undocumented migrants who are also vulnerable and need advocacy.”
Correcting imbalances like these, Vargas says, is something Define American tries to do in its work.
“We need different stories,” Vargas says, “so that we can get to a point where the narrative has been created that this is an issue that impacts all races and ethnicities.”
And that, he says, could have an impact far beyond the screen where any show is streaming.

Why the shows we see matter

Do the shows we watch on TV influence what we do in real life?
For Vargas and others at Define American, that’s a key question.
And they say a recent survey they conducted as part of their study revealed promising findings.
“What about people who have no contact with immigrants whatsoever?” Sarah Lowe, Define American’s head of research asked at a recent event presenting the study to writers in Hollywood. “Our findings show that your work can actually make a difference to those people, too.
“Just like the impact that ‘Will & Grace’ had with the LGBT movement, for regular viewers of ‘Superstore,’ Mateo feels like their friend. They feel like they know him, even if they don’t know any other immigrants in their daily life.”
And the study found that the “Superstore” viewers who felt that sense of friendship with Mateo, but had little or no real-life contact with immigrants, were more likely to support an increase in immigrants coming to the U.S.
For Vargas, Define American’s recent analysis of the “Superstore” character’s impact sends an important message.
“The images we see in media are often immigrants crying, immigrants sad, immigrants tragic, as if we have this veil of tragedy all around us, when in reality, the study showed, when you actually present an immigrant in a three-dimensional way as a person, people are moved to action, to tell another friend, to post something on social media,” he says.
And that’s a big reason Define American will keep pushing behind the scenes.

Source: This group is working behind the scenes to change the stories you see on TV

Multicultural Film Fund AUM Group Is Here to Empower Creatives of Color and Save Hollywood From Itself

Of note:

For creators of color, one of the biggest challenges is securing the funding needed to bring our dreams to life. That’s why producer Nina Yang Bongiovi (Fruitvale Station, Dope, Sorry to Bother You) has assembled a super team of film and tech heavyweights to launch the multicultural film fund AUM Group.

Comprised of Bongiovi, Gold House Chairman Bing Che, Twitch Co-Founder Kevin Lin, XRM Media’s Michael Y. Chow, MNM Creative’s Michael K. Shen, and Silicon Valley vets Jason A. Lin and Maggie Hsu, AUM Group will develop and acquire creative IP, finance multicultural motion pictures, and invest in the next generation of storytellers.

“Forest Whitaker and I have been backed by my Asian-American partners in leading the financing on every Significant Productions’ project since Fruitvale Station through Sorry to Bother You when no one else in the marketplace was willing to take the initial risk,” Bongiovi told The Root. “Partnering with an all-star team of business leaders in AUM Group is the next natural evolution in continuing to shift culture, amplify important dialogue, and elevate commercial opportunities.”

AUM Group led the financing of the upcoming suspense-thriller Passing, which stars fan-favorite Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and Andre Holland and navigates the complicated intersection of race, class and culture. It’s an adaptation based on the Nella Larsen novel published during the Harlem Renaissance.

For an industry in dire need of more people of color in positions of power in order to exert more control over the content being created, AUM Group is a welcome breath of fresh air. Just last month I wrote about UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report and…its findings were a bit concerning, to say the least.

But with its producer-led approach and Bongivoi’s track record of launching the careers of several noteworthy filmmakers, AUM Group could create a much-needed paradigm shift in entertainment.

Creatives, get your pitches ready.

Source: Multicultural Film Fund AUM Group Is Here to Empower Creatives of Color and Save Hollywood From Itself

And a related article:

With Asian and Asian American actors and filmmakers gaining prominence in Hollywood — the latest example: Parasite and The Farewell winning top honors at the Oscars and Spirit Awards — their counterparts in the executive suites are stepping up as well.

Nina Yang Bongiovi, who runs Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, revealed Feb. 24 that she has teamed with a coalition of film and tech veterans including Bing Chen, chairman of the Asian American nonprofit Gold House, and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin to launch the film fund AUM Group. Although founded by Asian Americans, the fund will back an array of multicultural film projects, starting with Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing. Now shooting, the drama is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about the evolving relationship between light-skinned black women (played by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga).

AUM Group’s announcement came four days after Mary Lee, most recently head of film at Justin Lin’s Perfect Storm Entertainment, unveiled her own banner, A-Major Media, which will focus on producing Asian American film and TV content. The company is backed by a non-exclusive majority investment from The Hollywood Reporter parent Valence Media, meaning that Lee is free to shop her projects to various production partners. Financial terms for A-Major and AUM Group were not disclosed.

Yang Bongiovi will continue to run Significant (Sorry to Bother You, Dope, Fruitvale Station), whose future projects will be supported by AUM Group, as could films from other companies — such as A-Major’s. “I’m excited about the fact that Mary could have support from AUM Group,” Yang Bongiovi tells THR. “We’re here to complement each other on our growth and presence in the business.”

A-Major already has a handful of projects on its slate, including an untitled film set up at New Line produced by John Cho and a TV series produced by Gemma Chan and Franklin Leonard. The company also is developing an adaptation of the 2015 YA novel I Believe in a Thing Called Love, about a teenage girl using K-drama techniques to woo her crush; an autobiographical film from Fresh Off the Boat co-executive producer Kourtney Kang about her high school experiences; and We Stan, a comedy about K-pop fans and friends from Atypical scribe Lauren Moon.

Yang Bongiovi and Lee cited 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians as a watershed moment that sparked faith to start their ventures. There have been Asian American studio toppers (including current DC Films chief Walter Hamada) and artists with their own shingles (Daniel Dae Kim’s 3AD), but few producer-driven companies like Dan Lin’s Rideback. That’s changing, Lee says: “[The presence of Asian Americans] has been good on the talent side, but it’s very important to be on the executive side as well. There have to be people in positions of power to champion these stories.”

Source: Asian American Producers Gain New Backing In Hollywood


How John Legend’s Get Lifted Became a Major Production House for Multicultural Storytelling

Given the overall lack of diversity in the industry as exemplified in the various awards, worth noting:

In the eight years since Get Lifted Film Co.’s start, the partnership launched by John Legend, Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius has grown to become an industry player. Launched in 2012, Get Lifted has delivered one thunderclap after another, from WGN America’s record-setting sensation “Underground,” to the Oscar winning “La La Land,” for which the company served as executive producer. On the stage, Get Lifted produced a 2017 Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” for which its founders won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

The trio has built a successful and influential independent production house without much fanfare, and have largely avoided any vanity press. They have more recently started to discuss the company, and all three founders sat with IndieWire last month for a lengthy and candid conversation about the origins of the company and its vision for the future.

“Hollywood has changed over the years, for women and people of color, because it was hard when we started,” Jackson said. “’12 Years a Slave’ hadn’t won an Oscar. And so we would pitch projects like a black historic biopic for example, and executives would scoff. So it’s been revealing to have been there before, and then to now see so much more openness and interest in the kind of stories we wanted to tell, but couldn’t.”

For many, Get Lifted is principally known as Legend’s company, but the company’s aspirations go far beyond his own musical and acting ambitions. (Its catchphrase: “Smart, Elevated, Commercial.”) The company’s most groundbreaking project to date is “Underground.” A critical success that also broke viewership records for WGN America in its first season in 2016, the series was a bold, refreshing take on the slave narrative, unfolding more like a fast-paced action-drama, than anything TV audiences had seen before it. And it caught on quickly: Slave narratives weren’t quite the same again after that, with last year’s Harriet Tubman biopic, “Harriet,” taking a similar approach.

“That really represented who we are and the types of chance-taking stories we wanted to be at the forefront of,” said Jackson. The project was a real breakthrough for the company. “It was something that came to us already pretty much baked, but we ensured that our DNA was in the show.”

They also tout the critical success of their new sketch series “Sherman’s Showcase,” which premiered on IFC last fall to raves. Created by Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, the series is hosted by Sherman McDaniel (Salahuddin) as he takes viewers through time via music and comedy drawn from the 40-year library of a legendary (but fictitious) musical variety show.

“It’s very smart, probably the best-reviewed thing I’ve ever been part of in my life,” said Legend. “There’s been this assumption that there isn’t an audience for intelligent black content, but we’re proving that it’s obviously not true.” The series will return with a one-hour “Black History Month Spectacular,” this summer, not in February.

Get Lifted’s latest offering, the Netflix hip-hop competition series “Rhythm + Flow,” was released in October 2019, also to raves.  In the series, which the company developed internally, hip hop artists Cardi B, Chance The Rapper, and Tip “T.I.” Harris critique and judge unsigned rappers, who are competing to win a $250,000 prize.

As usual, Netflix hasn’t released viewership data on the series, but its contestants have become stars virtually overnight, with the winner, a 34-year-old rapper named D Smoke, seeing his Instagram follower count skyrocket from around 7,000 to over 1.3 million in a matter weeks.

“Rhythm + Flow” is the first original music competition program for Netflix, which was the most sensible home for it, Legend said. “It was hard to try to make it at a regular network because of the language,” he said. “And there’s so many things that would sand off the edge of the show if it were sanitized, and hip hop needs edge. And we’re so happy to partner with Netflix because they allowed us to do exactly what we wanted to do.”

It’s a long way from when they first launched Get Lifted, and had to prove themselves. Some didn’t take them seriously: Legend’s celebrity was seen as a handicap, and they were treated like a vanity company. However, the founders that only made them more inclined to take risks.

“We had almost nothing to lose at that point,” Stiklorius said. “And so, looking back on those years when a lot of people were saying things like, ‘You’ll never make it in this town,’ it’s great that we’ve built a strong reputation for having great taste and great work ethic.”

As the company has grown, they haven’t lost that nerve — whether it’s with a wholly original program like an IFC sketch variety show that’s unlike anything before it, or NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” which Legend starred in.

A lot of people balked at that last one. “The three of us talked and decided, John being the black Jesus? We’ve got to do this,” Stiklorius said. “We exec produced it, and then we won the Emmy for it. But everything about how we live our lives, and what we’ve done to get to this point, is about going against the norm, doing the work and believing in ourselves.”

The three founders have been friends for many years. Stiklorius and Jackson grew up together in Philadelphia. Legend met Stiklorius in college, at the University of Pennsylvania, in the mid-1990s, where they sang in an a capella group. She would eventually introduce Legend to Jackson, who became the singer’s first manager, after graduating from Penn in 1999.

Legend’s music career took off when his debut studio album, “Get Lifted,” was released in 2004 by Columbia Records. Music eventually brought him into the world of film and television, and he never looked back, becoming increasingly more influential as his celebrity grew. Get Lifted Film Co. was born not long after that. They sold over two dozen shows almost immediately, but quickly realized that getting those projects on the air was a whole separate challenge.

“We would pitch and they would buy it in the room, and we were thinking, ‘This is easy’,” Stiklorius said. “The frustrating part was getting all the way to the finish line with any project. But we knew that we had really great ideas, because they were at least buying into them.”

Get Lifted landed its first overall deal from Universal about nine months after it launched, which kept the company afloat as its ambitions grew. It took another three to four years before its first TV show actually made it to series — “Underground,” in 2016 — and it was a big year for the company, which had a hit TV series and two feature film releases: the young Obama romance, “Southside with You,” and “La La Land.” Following its Sundance premiere, “Southside With You” was praised by critics, and was a mild box office hit; and “La La Land” received a record-tying 14 nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, winning in six categories.

More deals would come, including a multi-year overall production pact signed in early 2017 with independent studio Critical Content to create unscripted television and digital media content. A few months later, the company inked a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television, and in 2019, signed a three-year overall deal with ABC Studios after a multiple-studio bidding war.

Now, Get Lifted is benefited from changes to the industry climate, from the rise of streamers to increased pressure to diversify. The founders said they have more outlets for their projects, but like anyone else, faced more competition than ever before. One advantage: Legend’s starpower and social media reach, which includes over 13 million followers on Twitter, and close to 12 million on Instagram.

The company has a lot in the pipeline, but the project they expressed particular enthusiasm for upcoming Netflix musical “Jingle Jangle,” written and directed by David E. Talbert. Get Lifted’s biggest and most expensive project to date, it stars Forest Whitaker and Madalen Mills in the story of a toymaker and his granddaughter who construct a magical invention which, if they can get it to work in time for the holidays, could change their lives forever. Jackson called it “black ‘Willy Wonka.’”

Talbert had been trying to get off the ground for nearly two decades when Netflix bought the pitch in 2017, and Get Lifted came onboard as producers the following year. “It’s amazing to be part of something that’s really this huge, with this budget, for original content by a black writer and director, with an all black cast, and black producers,” said Legend. (Netflix is targeting a fall release.)

So what does Get Lifted envision for the future? “World domination,” Jackson joked, but noted the company has developed an international footprint with unscripted shows like “Rhythm + Flow.” The team is are also having broader conversations about how to expand the brand, and the potential of owning their own distribution channels so they can operate on multiple platforms.

“We’re pretty ambitious and have smartly taken our time and built our business slowly and systematically,” Legend said. “Now we’re at that point where we can expand it globally, and really make a dent, without ever losing our identity and without compromise.”

Source: How John Legend’s Get Lifted Became a Major Production House for Multicultural Storytelling

The Hollywood Diversity Officer’s Dilemma: “Everybody’s in a Different Place”

Some change:

The industry has moved quickly to hire and elevate executives focused on diversifying teams and content — in a changing landscape, the complex role “is tiring, but it’s rewarding.”

When DreamWorks Animation executives wanted a fresh perspective on character designs for one of their TV shows recently, they sent the illustrations to Janine Jones-Clark, senior vp of parent Universal’s global talent development and inclusion department. “They were creating an African American character,” Jones-Clark recalls. “My suggestion had to do with authenticity in hairstyle and texture.”

Her note is one of the small ways in which Jones-Clark — and others in Hollywood with the word “diversity,” “inclusion” or “multicultural” in their job title — are increasingly making an impact on not only who their companies hire but also the content they create. Chief diversity officer (CDO) is a relatively new job title; 47 percent of companies in the S&P 500 index have a CDO or equivalent, and 63 percent of those have been appointed or promoted to the role in the past three years, according to a recent study by executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. It’s a job with growing prominence in a Hollywood rocked by such social movements as #MeToo and Time’s Up, not to mention evolving audience demographics, and it’s one that requires a unique kind of emotional ambidexterity. Publicly, CDOs cheer on their companies’ progress and tout their inclusion programs, while privately they must nudge the most powerful people inside their organizations toward uncomfortable conversations about workforce and creative decisions.

“In any organization, everybody is in a different place when it comes to inclusion, and you have to meet people where they are,” says Julie Ann Crommett, vp multicultural audience engagement at Disney. “You build trust with a leader or employee that you are a safe person to have a conversation with. Then you can get on the real-real and hear something that they might not express in a wider room. It’s tiring, but it’s rewarding.”

The role has evolved, says Tina Shah Paikeday, one of the Russell Reynolds study’s authors and leader of the firm’s global diversity and consulting services practice. “Historically there was a focus on compliance [with federal laws],” she explains. “But today the successful CDO is able to chip away at the problem, to use data to tell the narrative within an organization.”

CDOs rely on a bag of tricks to get their perspectives across. Tiffany Smith Anoa’i, executive vp entertainment diversity, inclusion and communications at CBS Entertainment, has given dozens of her colleagues copies of the book The Hidden Brain, a data-driven exploration of unconscious bias by Shankar Vedantam. Once a publicist at CBS, Smith Anoa’i pitched the idea of her current role to former CBS executive Nina Tassler with a PowerPoint presentation featuring data on who’s watching TV and who’s buying the products advertised. “At the end of my pitch, Nina said, ‘We would be crazy not to make his happen.’ ”

There are triumphs in the job — Crommett points to Disney’s hiring of more women directors and directors of color, Jones-Clark to Universal’s creation of a program for female composers, one of the moviemaking roles in which women are especially scarce. But there can be disappointments, particularly, CDOs say quietly, when virtually the only people of color in a company are those working in the diversity and inclusion departments.

Whitney Davis, who recently wrote for Variety about her decision to leave a diversity-focused role at CBS, says she grew tired of fighting what felt like a losing battle, particularly when inclusion initiatives discovered talent like Tiffany Haddish, KiKi Layne, Kate McKinnon and Hasan Minhaj, but the company ultimately did not hire them. “It became taxing,” Davis says. “I was working to try to introduce my colleagues to these creatives and they weren’t getting jobs at CBS. I started to question my taste. And then I’d see them go to other networks and be very successful.” Davis sees the value of CDOs’ efforts. At CBS, for example, two of last fall’s new scripted series, God Friended Me and Magnum P.I., feature people of color in the lead roles. “I can’t imagine how far back we’d be without inclusion and diversity departments,” she adds. “But just having people in these departments, that’s not cutting it. Not if your board isn’t inclusive. Not if the people in power aren’t inclusive. If that’s the case, what’s the point?”

Source: The Hollywood Diversity Officer’s Dilemma: “Everybody’s in a Different Place”

Spielberg’s spiel against Netflix’s eligibility for Oscars has minority filmmakers bristling

An angle I hadn’t thought of:

When Steven Spielberg speaks about the business of Hollywood, everyone generally listens and few dissent. But reports that he intends to support rule changes that could block Netflix from Oscars-eligibility have provoked a heated, and unwieldy, debate online this weekend. It has found the legendary filmmaker at odds with some industry heavyweights, who have pointed out that Netflix has been an important supporter of minority filmmakers and stories, especially in awards campaigns, while also reigniting the ongoing streaming versus theatrical debate.

Spielberg has weighed in before on whether streaming movies should compete for the film industry’s most prestigious award (TV movies, he said last year, should compete for Emmys), but that was before Netflix nearly succeeded in getting its first best picture Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” at last week’s Academy Awards. Netflix, of course, did not win the top award — “Green Book,” which was produced partially by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, did.

Still, Netflix was a legitimate contender and this year, the streaming service is likely to step up its awards game even more with Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which The Hollywood Reporter said may also gunning for a wide-theatrical release. A teaser ad aired during the 91st Oscars for the gangster drama said “in theatres next fall,” instead of the “in select theatres” phrasing that was used for “Roma.”

But Netflix also isn’t playing by the same rules as other studios. The company doesn’t report theatrical grosses, for one, and it’s been vexing some more traditional Hollywood executives throughout this award season and there have been whispers in recent weeks that a reckoning is coming.

Now, Spielberg and others are planning to do something about it by supporting a revised film academy regulation at an upcoming meeting of the organization’s board of governors that would disqualify Netflix from the Oscars, or at least how the streaming giant currently operates during awards season.

This year “Roma” got a limited theatrical qualifying run and an expensive campaign with one of the industry’s most successful awards publicists, Lisa Taback, leading the charge. But Netflix, operates somewhat outside of the industry while also infiltrating its most important institutions, like the Oscars and the Motion Picture Association of America. Some like Spielberg, are worried about what that will mean for the future of movies.

“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” an Amblin spokesperson told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson late last week. “He’ll be happy if the others will join (his campaign) when that comes up. He will see what happens.”

An Amblin representative said Sunday there was nothing to add.

But some see Spielberg’s position as wrong-minded, especially when it comes to the Academy Awards, which requires a theatrical run to be eligible for an award. Many online have pointed out the hypocrisy that the organization allows members to watch films on DVD screeners before voting.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted at the film academy’s handle in response to the news that the topic would be discussed at a board of governors meeting, which is comprised of only 54 people out of over 8,000 members.

“I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently,” DuVernay wrote.

Some took a more direct approach, questioning whether Spielberg understands how important Netflix has been to minority filmmakers in recent years.

Franklin Leonard, who founded The BlackList, which surveys the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, noted that Netflix’s first four major Oscar campaigns were all by and about people of colour: “Beasts of No Nation,” “The 13th,” “Mudbound” and “Roma.”

“It’s possible that Steven Spielberg doesn’t know how difficult it is to get movies made in the legacy system as a woman or a person of colour. In his extraordinary career, he hasn’t exactly produced or executive produced many films directed by them,” Leonard tweeted Saturday. “By my count, Spielberg does one roughly every two decades.”

It’s important to note that Netflix didn’t produce “Beasts of No Nation,” “Mudbound” or “Roma,” but rather acquired them for distribution. But if Oscar campaigns are no longer part of the equation in a Netflix-partnership, top-tier filmmakers are likely to take their talents and films elsewhere.

Others, like “First Reformed” filmmaker Paul Schrader, had a slightly different take.

“The notion of squeezing 200+ people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics not any notion of the ‘theatrical experience,”‘ Schrader wrote in a Facebook post Saturday. “Netflix allows many financially marginal films to have a platform and that’s a good thing.”

But his Academy Award-nominated film, he thinks, would have gotten lost on Netflix and possibly, “Relegated to film esoterica.” Netflix had the option to purchase the film out of the Toronto International Film Festival and didn’t. A24 did and stuck with the provocative film through awards season.

“Distribution models are in flux,” Schrader concluded. “It’s not as simple as theatrical versus streaming.”

One thing is certain, however: Netflix is not going away any time soon and how it integrates with the traditional structures of Hollywood, like the Oscars, is a story that’s still being written.

Sean Baker, who directed “The Florida Project,” suggested a compromise: That Netflix offered a “theatrical tier” to pricing plans, which would allow members to see its films in theatres for free.

“I know I’d spend an extra 2 dollars a month to see films like ‘Roma’ or ‘Buster Scruggs’ on the big screen,” Baker tweeted. “Just an idea with no details ironed out. But we need to find solutions like this in which everybody bends a bit in order to keep the film community (which includes theatre owners, film festivals and competitive distributors) alive and kicking.”

Hollywood Diversity Report Finds Progress, But Much Left To Gain

While I always find these annual reports interesting and important, particularly enjoying sharing it this year from LA:

Gains have been made for women and people of color who work in movies and TV, but the numbers remain a long way from proportionately reflecting the U.S. population, according to a new study from UCLA.

The annual Hollywood Diversity Report looks at diversity both in front of and behind the camera. It also looks at box office and ratings.

The report states that evidence continues to suggest “America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content,” and that “diversity is essential for Hollywood’s bottom line.”

The report found that many top-rated, scripted broadcast TV shows have diverse casts. However, the report also notes that while people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, just a fraction of that number work as film writers (12.6 percent) or directors (7.8 percent).

The report also shows the number of female film directors nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 — but only to about 12.6 percent of all directors.

Darnell Hunt is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at UCLA and co-authored the study. He notes how industry attitudes toward diversity have changed since his group’s first study, published in 2014.

“When we started to study diversity … it was kind of seen as a luxury, as something that you’d get around to but it’s not what’s driving day-to-day business practices,” Hunt says. “Over time, as it became clear that audiences were becoming more diverse and that they were demanding diverse content, diversity itself was seen as a business imperative. Like, ‘We have to figure out ways to create more diverse products because that’s what today’s increasingly diverse audiences are demanding.’ That’s a relatively new phenomenon that … most people would not have been talking about that, you know, five, 10 years ago. Today, everyone’s talking about it.”

Muslims Are Having A Hollywood Moment

Of note:

On the last day of taping for a new 10-part Web series called East of La Brea, the cameras are set up at a local mosque for a scene about a 20-something black Muslim woman who’s praying. Suddenly her phone rings and the quiet space fills with raucous and racy lyrics from a pop song. Around her, older women shoot her shady stares.

This show is one example of what appears to be a shift in Hollywood. On TV and on online streaming services, Hollywood watchers say more Muslim characters than ever before are showing up in sitcoms and dramas. The characters they portray are more nuanced and more complicated than usual. In part, that’s because many Muslims themselves are writing these shows and characters.

East of La Brea is a show about being in your 20s and figuring out life against the gentrifying backdrop of Los Angeles, told through two main characters, roommates who are Muslim. But that’s not the entirety of the women’s storylines, says Sameer Gardezi, a Pakistani-American screenwriter and the creator of the show.

“I really feel like when people watch this it’s going to feel like [it is] an LA story,” Gardezi says. “Being Muslim is part of them, we don’t ignore that, but at the same time their problems aren’t necessarily faith based; they are based on other aspects that I feel are more relevant to what it means to lead an American life.”

Things like paying rent, feeling lost in a dead-end job and dealing with addiction in a family.

The Web series is the first project from Powderkeg, the digital media company founded by director, writer and actor Paul Feig, known for directing films like Bridesmaids and creating the show Freaks and Geeks. The company was founded to uplift underrepresented voices.

East of La Brea follows the friendship of two Muslim women of color, one black and one Bangladeshi-American. It was created with a grant from Pop Culture Collaborative, an organization whose goal is to boost authentic stories about minority communities, and in collaboration with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. The production is being partially funded by Lyft Entertainment and the Chicago-based Pillars Fund, a fund to bolster American Muslim voices.

It’s one of several projects by and about Muslims that are in the pipeline or have recently debuted in the entertainment industry. But Gardezi says this story is just one American Muslim story.

“There are so many different versions and my hope would be that everyone gets a shot at telling their version,” he said. “So it doesn’t feel like oh, this is the one Muslim show that needs to make it.”

Communities of color and minorities in Hollywood feel that that is often the way it happens: They get one shot to show that their characters are marketable, one shot to reflect the entirety of incredibly diverse and complicated communities. Gardezi says it’s impossible to do that with one show.

The Trump presidency inspired new Muslim content

But Muslims are embracing the moment. Right now, there’s an appetite for content including or about their communities in part it is because Muslim writers like Gardezi, who has written for Modern Family and Outsourced, are creating their own content. But a lot of the interest is because the entertainment industry itself is reacting to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment from Donald Trump.

When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, followed months later by a call for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the country, the Hollywood bureau at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPAC, got a lot more popular.

“The phones were ringing off the hook,” said Sue Obeidi, the Hollywood Bureau director.

She consults with studios, production companies and writers to help them create more authentic Muslim characters.

“We’re up against decades of storytelling that is inaccurate many times, that is racist often and very stereotypical,” she said.

Among the tropes, she said, are portrayals of women as chattel, who don’t have identities, or Muslims portrayed only as gas station owners, taxi drivers or violent villains.

Obeidi says it’s an uphill battle, but things are changing. She starts to list the number of characters on mainstream shows on a white board.

“A Muslim surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy; a superhero on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow; an LGBTQ hijabi Muslim (she said Hijabi which is an adjective, Hijab is the article of clothing, Hijabi is used to describe someone who wears the Hijab) on The Bold Type; a pork-loving, alcohol- drinking Muslim on Master of None.”

When writers come to her for advice, Obeidi reminds them that these Muslim characters might be the only Muslims some people ever meet. She tries to help them get the language right, for example in scripts that use the term Allahu akbar, which means God is great in Arabic, the language of the Qu’ran.

“You’ve seen many TV and film projects that have Allahu akbar being used in very violent scenes,” she said.

She negotiates to try to get writers to take it out or offset it with happy scenes like using the term Allahu akbar at a wedding or a dinner party. Because for Muslims it’s a beautiful phrase portrayed as ugly. And the impact can have profound ramifications in real life.

“So someone hears Allahu akbar when they’re dining out and all of a sudden you know they’re calling 911 because they think a family is doing something bad,” she said. “When all they’re saying is God is great.”

A lack of diversity in Hollywood and other places means the clichés and the distortions can prevail. Despite progress, Hollywood still struggles with reflecting a more and more diverse America. The Hollywood Diversity Report, released by UCLA in 2018, shows people of color still lag in all key jobs in the industry, from leading roles to creators of content.

That’s why this moment feels like a turning point for Muslims, Obeidi and others say.

Not every project is incredible material. Many positive Muslim characters fall into two camps that a lot of Muslims find frustrating: one, the Muslim hero fighting terror; the other, the confused Muslim who abandons his culture for a secular life. Both are storylines unrecognizable to a lot of Muslims.

That’s why the content in the pipeline today, being written by and about Muslims for large audiences, is so anticipated. There’s Hassan Minhaj’s weekly comedy show on Netflix that begins this month; an autobiographical sitcom for ABC being developed by Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American comic with cerebral palsy; and a new sitcom called Ramy on Hulu, developed by Ramy Youssef, who is following in the path of iconic comics who came before him turning standup into a sitcom like Seinfeld.

Islam is suddenly cool

On a recent night at the Hollywood Improv, Youssef is headlining, joking about all the things that make him who he is: a millennial, a practicing Muslim trying to be good, an American, the son of Egyptian immigrants.

He also jokes about how, in LA, suddenly people think Islam is cool. “I was at a juice shop. I was talking to this woman telling her about Ramadan, she works there. She was like, ‘oh My God that’s sounds so amazing. I’m gonna do it this weekend.’ She said it like it was Coachella.”

After his standup performance he talks about how he and his friends joke about approaching religion like a menu. Ramy doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs but he does have premarital sex. That’s his arbitrary line, he says.

“We call it Allah cart. We’re kind of just picking and choosing like ‘Well, this is my deal with God,’ ” he said.

He hopes Ramy demonstrates how all kinds of people have their deal with God.

“In my standup I like to get dark, I like to get weird, I like to get uncomfortable,” he said. “I feel like when an immigrant family or when a family that is maybe a group that’s not well represented, when people try and put them on television, they go out of their way to make them look amazing and look perfect.”

His show won’t do that.

“I just was really excited about the idea of making Muslims look imperfect,” he said. “Not create something that was some P.R. thing, but create something that was, you know, really just a realistic portrayal of what we go through, how we are.”

Sameer Gardezi, the East of La Brea writer, says he doesn’t think that any one show can be the breakout moment for Muslims, when the communities are so diverse, nuanced and different from person to person, from place to place.

“That is the flexibility and the privilege that I think white communities have is that they’re allowed to fail in Hollywood and no one really bats an eye,” he said. A new project will still be funded.

“So that’s the point that we have to get to,” Gardezi said.

Source: Muslims Are Having A Hollywood Moment